The Soup Kitchen:

Something for Everyone

by Janette Gerber

The Never-Empty Nest
There was never a need for a nursing home for the elderly Gerbers. Bob’s mother Mutsie’s health failed in her later years. Bob’s father Popsie played ukulele, mandolin, and piano with The Elderberries when he was well into his 80s, more from the habit of playing the tunes than from being the sharp, handsome man that he had once been. The situation was simply that with so many people coming and going, the Gerber nest was never empty, the family elders were never alone, and the need for professional care just never came up. What came to the aid of the elderly was that they had spent decades teaching family to become family, they naturally leaned toward cooperation and kindness, and they had created Home for those of all ages and possible infirmities. The home that eventually came to be called The Soup Kitchen was the house on Lloyd Street. It would see the comings and goings of five generations: one matched set of great aunt with great uncle, 2 parents, 7 children, 16 grandchildren, and 4 great-grandchildren.

Real estate records from the 1920s and phone books from the days when phones were nonportable, and issued one black model to a family, indicate that it was always the Gerbers who had lived at the two-story house on Lloyd Street. Great Aunt Elizabeth and her husband Alson had lived there first, and she in fact had died in the middle bedroom at the tender age of 60 years. Life went on.

Elizabeth’s nephew Popsie and his bride Mutsie moved into the house when Aunt Elizabeth was gone and her husband Alson had moved to a smaller home. As Popsie and Mutsie’s marriage progressed, one by one, every 2 or 3 years, the children came until there were seven living and one lost. The sheer logistics of feeding nine people at every meal always left my head spinning, but it must have worked somehow. In the yard was an apple tree that never produced normal-sized fruit the entire time it grew. One apple was as small as the next, and Mutsie gathered the tiny green things and turned them into pies. Bees always infested the pear tree, more the challenge to get at the juicy, sweet fruit. Popsie picked the bitter cherries from the cherry tree and made what he called “cherry phosphates,” in a futile attempt to entice the juveniles to drink the nasty brew.

Ebb and Flow
As in most old homes, there were several layers of sleeping rooms. Word was that as the eldest child grew, he or she simply moved to another bedroom on another level, eventually landing in the attic room. The attic was hot in summer, cold in winter, and prone to wasp infestations—and upon graduating from high school, the attic occupant would realize that the time for an apartment had come. Yet, there always seemed to be someone on the level below, waiting for the attic room.

The process of having children ran its natural course, and the house then contained only Popsie and Mutsie as stay-put residents, with a steady stream of visitors stopping ‘round to visit. A grandchild would come to stay the weekend, joined by another grandchild and a visiting family from out of state. Divorce would happen, as it sometimes does, and even that was taken in stride, and an adult child would move back home again. A grandchild would stay longer than a weekend, and a once-empty bedroom would bulge again with posters and music.

Christmas and Thanksgiving were not famous; they were notorious. As Bob’s generation matured, they generally married. Each sibling then became and acquired what the family called a “spousal unit.” Generic for either husband or wife, the term covered males and females, natural or acquired family members, and it was a term always used with respect. Every holiday, Bob’s siblings would each bring a covered dish, the main course being cooked at the house. The dinner table would snake from the dining room through to the living room with all those children, all those spousal units, 16 grandchildren, and The Posse of Friends. At the end of the meal, every dish was washed, dried, and put away in the old kitchen cupboards. As the house was functional, so was the family. It had always been that way. The dishes got washed?no need to ask for volunteers, no option of a dishwasher.

It Had Always Been That Way
From long past, rumor was that Bob’s paternal great-grandfather had had two wives simultaneously, and that they had gotten along well enough to live together for a while. That rumor was not entirely true. Friedrich had actually had three wives, one eventually moving to Ohio and starting the Lloyd Street tradition of Gerbers. A grandchild once deemed the situation “gross.” We don’t know the details, but it was a large family with a large farm that needed care. Maybe they were Mormon. Whatever the case, that core of supportive cooperation remained entrenched through two, then three, then four generations, with the fifth still in youth.

Through three family deaths now, I have never seen so much as a ripple of discord: no disputes over the family china, no spite, no drama. When Aunt Rose died, the executor took each family through her home to select items wanted. Not one family member wished for more or complained of getting less. Each had mementos, and none wanted what the other had taken. At gatherings, one sibling would comment that if he were to win the lottery, all mortgages would be paid off. Another would add that if he won the lottery, the entire crowd was going to Mexico, right on the beach. This was an alien concept to me: a totally functional family. Upon even a predictable death due to age, I had seen the intrigues of some families rival those of the infamous Borgias. With the Gerbers, multiple wives had managed together, multiple generations came and went. It was not simply a melting pot, but a thick and hearty soup of supportive family members.

Popsie died at the age of 89 years and some months. It was Popsie’s time. He went into the hospital and did not leave. Dave’s marital circumstances (“drama, more drama”) meant he would move home again and would be there with Mutsie, helping and being helped. And then, dear, sweet Mutsie knew what was coming, went into the hospital, and she too was gone.

The Soup Kitchen
Dave, the youngest son, watched the stream of humanity, and spent his days at work and his evenings either shopping for more groceries or cooking more food. Someone was always being fed, and the moniker of The Soup Kitchen just seemed to fit.

Employment pulled two brothers from their wives and homes. Family did what made sense. Rather than each brother having an unfurnished apartment, each would move to The Soup Kitchen during the week and then head for his respective home and wife for the weekends. Never mind that Ben was the only family member who explicitly did not like dogs and that the resident dog was a pit bull. That would work itself out just fine. Dave’s four children would come and go during the week, then settle in for the weekends. The Posse of Friends would arrive with one son or another. Friends were friends; neighbors dated back to when Mutsie was in third grade in the 1920s, but only The Blood had the keys to The Soup Kitchen. It was, after all, Home.

What of the dreaded Drama? All families have drama. For some families there would have been a gnashing of teeth and flailing of arms when the unexpected happened. That wasn’t the style at the house on Lloyd Street. “What’s new?” “We have Drama.” And then there would be a very—very—lengthy explanation of the latest trials of one teenager or another. And the ending would always be the same: “We sorted it out.”

When I met his family for the first time, Bob asked me if I had been overwhelmed or even intimidated by the multitude. There were six siblings, each with a normal name and an unusual nickname. There were four spousal units and an assortment of giggling and squeaking children. The family tended toward divorce, but sometimes even ex-spouses would show up at family gatherings. The place was often packed tight with human life, and at times the family would resort to an odd sort of language of its own?a combination of what sounded like German but wasn’t. Then again, it wasn’t English either. And everyone spoke it, often as a term of greeting or farewell. A person just learned it as she went along, made a wild guess as to meaning, or asked for translation. Intimidated? Oh, heck no, not at all. Charmed was more like it.

The Gerber Way
And as for the three wives of great-grandfather? One hundred years after the family members had lost contact with one another, genealogy work reconnected the branches of the family. Two brothers made the journey out of state for a reunion and were welcomed warmly. The odd surprise was that The Soup Kitchen mentality seemed to run through every branch, through people who had never even met, through the newly rediscovered branch that had stayed in the north on the farm. Out of state, the eldest family members were living in a new house on the land of the family farm, with a son moved back home and a daughter living next door in the original house built by great-great-grandfather in the mid-1800s. The new house had an elevator and wide halls to accommodate a wheelchair, so there was no need for a nursing home, not with family close by and cooperation being the habit.

It was, after all, the Gerber way ... a welcoming Soup Kitchen of life and family.

Janette Gerber lives in Ohio with her husband, Bob, and their Weimaraner Jagger. Health and finances permitting, they love to travel to Mexico, where they can walk in peace, enjoy the charm, and breathe the great ocean air. Their son Matt, his young lady Melissa, and their vizsla Bo stop ‘round to visit. Janette bakes, does genealogy, and makes … soup.

She holds a BA from Kent State University, 1970. Yes, she was there during the shootings. From habit, en route to class, she turned left instead of right or would have found herself in an ugly situation. She also attended Universidad de las Americas in Mexico and the University of Hawaii.

Almost all first and last names in the article have been changed to respect family privacy.

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